–Rather bleak in wintertime, I should say. Martello you call it?
— Billy Pitt had them built, Buck Mulligan said, when the French were on the sea. But ours is the omphalos.
To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.
Ulysses opens with a scene familiar to anyone who has lived in a too-small apartment with roommates – Stephen Dedalus chafing at the harsh banter of Buck Mulligan and the too-eager curiosity of Haines the English Hibernophile in their shared chambers in a seaside tower. Ultimately, Stephen decides not to vacate the tower; a literary “Screw you guys, I’m outta here.”
The Martello towers’ design is based on a tower held by the French in Mortella on the island of Corsica. It took British ships years to breach the tiny cylindrical tower even though it was only manned by a small crew. Seeing as how it managed to keep them out, the British decided the same design could be used to keep foreign invaders out of their empire as well. Roughly 50 were built in Ireland, mainly along the east coast. 15 were commissioned between Dublin and Bray in 1804 to prevent a French invasion during the Napoleonic wars, and we have to assume they worked because the French never invaded Ireland. They were unable to protect the coast from a more malevolent force, however, as Bono once resided in the Bray Martello tower.
Martello towers exist in various sizes and shapes on five continents, but the ones in Britain and Ireland are between 30 and 40 ft. (9 – 12 m.) tall, three stories tall and house a rotating gun or cannon on the roof. The Sandycove Martello Tower was no. 11 of the 15 and was briefly home to a young James Joyce in 1904. More on that in a moment. It lies about 8 miles south of Dublin and is currently home to a James Joyce museum and spectacular views of Dublin Bay and its surrounds.
In the opening episode of Ulysses, Joyce describes the tower’s “dark winding stairs,” its gunrest, parapets and the “jagged granite” of the exterior on the roof. I’ve been to the tower myself, and on the roof there still stands a tall metal pole at the center of the round roof where a rotating cannon would have been attached, referred to as a “gunrest” in Ulysses. A gut-wrenchingly (scotumtighteningly?) narrow staircase connects the roof to the upper of the two inner chambers. Buck Mulligan is described “tramp[ing] down the stone stairs” at one point, though I chose to gingerly cling to a wall. In my opinion, it would be physically impossible to to tramp down those stairs without breaking an ankle.
The upper chamber has been furnished by the museum to look like the living quarters used by Joyce and his cohorts – “Two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor from the high barbicans…” I’m assuming he’s referring to the two narrow windows in the chamber, but barbicans are typically exterior towers on a fortified structure. I’m not sure why Joyce chose to characterize them this way. In its heyday, this room would have housed the 16 gunners manning the tower. The lower chamber is another cold, stony room and would have housed the tower’s sergeant, the crew’s provisions and munitions. Joyce and co. lived in the lower chamber. Now that lower chamber home to the main exhibits of the museum, which is well worth checking out. Though the entrance to the tower is now conveniently accessible, at the time of its building, the entrance would have been high off the ground and accessible by an exterior ladder, over which there were murder holes to allowing the dumping of unpleasant things onto unwanted guests.
In Ulysses, Stephen and the boys have breakfast in an inner chamber, during which an elderly milk woman enters to deliver milk and collect her debts. Later, as the boys head out the bathe in the sea, they climb down a ladder. In Richard Ellmann’s excellent Joyce biography, he describes the tower having an entrance ten feet off the ground, accessible by rope ladder. I’m uncertain if this means the milk woman would have climbed a rope ladder with her milk can. If so, she would have been pretty tough. Also, the boys climb down a ladder and then lock the door, which wouldn’t make sense for an exterior ladder.
I’ve chalked any confusing details up to the fact that the real-life Joyce only lived in the tower for about six days. His friend, Oliver St. John Gogarty, rented the tower beginning in 1904. Gogarty did what artists have done in cities time untold – he found an old rundown building in a cheap part of town and planned to fill it with himself and his artist friends. Gogarty had plans to “hellenise” Ireland – to make it a more civilized place. He saw his home in the Sandycove tower as the movement’s “omphalos” – a Greek term that can either mean a belly button or the center of the world itself. Buck Mulligan, Gogarty’s literary counterpart, mentions a similar plan throughout the opening episode of Ulysses.
Most of the Martello towers along the Irish coast were demilitarized in the 1860’s, but the Sandycove tower wasn’t demilitarized until 1900. Gogarty made his interest in renting the tower known to “His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State of the War Department” in June of 1904. Gogarty claimed that Joyce rented the tower, but records show this isn’t true. Rent was a whopping £8 per year, though in “Telemachus,” the first episode of Ulysses, Stephen quotes the price as £12. Gogarty began occupying the tower in August and paid rent on it until 1925. He invited his friend Joyce (though, truth be told, they were more frenemies by that point) to come be part of his omphalos. Joyce lasted about six days, from September 9 through 15 of 1904.
Haines’ real-life counterpart was named Samuel Chenevix Trench (he also went by Dermot), a friend of Gogarty’s from Oxford, though Trench was Anglo-Irish, not English. Like the fictional Haines, Trench had nightmares about a black panther. On Joyce’s sixth night in the tower, Trench found his pistol and began shooting at the panther as he slept, firing blindly in the small sleeping quarters shared by the three. Gogarty responded by taking the gun from Haines and offering to protect him from the panther. He did so by firing at the pots and pans hanging above Joyce’s head, knocking them onto Joyce. Joyce stormed out the tower, not even bothering to collect his belongings, and walked the eight miles back into Dublin. He left Ireland for Switzerland with Nora Barnacle shortly after.
Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.
Martello Towers on Geograph:
James Joyce Tower and Museum:
The James Joyce Centre’s articles on the Martello Tower: